“Are you emotionally prepared to be copied?”
Ten years ago, a community came together around a definition of open source hardware to be clear about what it means to share designs for physical things:
“Open source hardware is a term for tangible artifacts – machines devices or other physical things – whose design has been released to the public in such a way that anyone can make, modify, distribute, and use those things.”
This definition has been managed by the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) and expanded in detail and scope. In this episode, I talk with Alicia Gibb, Executive Director of OSHWA and board president, Michael Weinberg, about the growth of open source hardware, its certification program, and the role of open source hardware in the maker response to COVID-19. Michael has also written an article in the current issue of Make: Volume 75, titled “OSHW Turns 10.” Along with Clarissa Redwine, Michael has written the “Open Source Hardware Weather Report 2020,” published in October in association with the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law and Policy at NYU.
Michael: A lot of times when I talk to people about open source hardware, one of the things I talk about that excites me about the community is the diversity of the community across a number of different metrics and really about how it’s, it’s such a creative community. And it’s a community that really sees itself as a community with intentionality and really sees its collective purpose to create interesting creative, innovative works across a huge range.
Alicia: [Ten years ago, it] was a much smaller collective than today, but it was very much, in the electronics industry. So that is where opens source hardware got its start. It was a bunch of startups, right? it was a bunch of small companies and now, we’re having to wrap our heads around, okay, how does Texas instruments and Intel feel about this statement of open-source hardware and how do we talk to those companies as well as still be accessible to all the smaller companies?
Michael: We need a way for someone to say, when I say “open source hardware,” I’m talking about this community definition of open source hardware that OSHWA is the steward of. And when I am looking at things that are saying they’re open source hardware, I want a way to know what they’re talking about when they say open source hardware.
The certification program was designed from OSHWA as a free program where if you’re creating hardware and you want to show that when you say open source hardware, you are talking about hardware that complies with the community definition. You apply. Again, it’s free. It gets reviewed by our team, and then you get to get two things. You get the permission to use a specific certification logo, not the open gear logo. It’s the certification logo. And you get a unique identifier, which then allows people to find all of your documentation easily through the certification site.
Alicia: If Arduino, the company, went away tomorrow, Arduinos would still be produced all around the world in their derivative form. The community would still keep up the software and the IDE. It would not cease to exist just because the company did. And I think that’s a really powerful way to think about your legacy living on as a piece of open-source hardware. If you truly just want that piece of open-source hardware to exist, if you want that piece of hardware at all to exist, open source it because then it will exist past yourself and past what innovations you could think of in an entire world of people dreaming up innovations.
Alicia: One of the things that we had to do is create this document — here’s your checklist of everything you have to do in open source hardware. And one of the things we had to add to it early on was a question of “are you emotionally prepared to be copied?”
Because we would get emails at the association that said: “Hey, I open sourced my hardware and I did it right. And somebody copied me, what are you going to do about it?” And we went to say, “congratulations, you did it correctly.”
Michael: One of the things that we talk about it’s important not to open is your trademark. And sometimes I tell people, trademark law is the flux capacitor of open source hardware. It’s what makes open source hardware possible because in a world of exact copies and clones, the one thing that you’ve held on to as a company is your name.
Alicia: I’ve looked to other organizations that are really welcoming for communities. Things like the Grace Hopper Institute or, the ADA Initiative when it was around. So it’s playing off those organizations to try to figure out how else can we be more inclusive and how else can we make sure that our community is feeling welcomed and things like that.
So that’s where even the ADA Lovelace fellowships stemmed from was just this push that our open source hardware community when a new person came in, we didn’t want their first experience to be somebody yelling at them on the internet.